Blue imaginaries for Green New Deals

Senior maritime officials, legislators from the Federal Parliament and the state assemblies attend a conference jointly organized by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Integrated UNSOM-UNDP Security Sector Reform team in Mogadishu, Somalia, on 25 August 2019. The conference, organised for the Federal Ministry of Ports and Marine Transport, focused on the revision of the Maritime Code of 1959 and amended in 1988.

Flickr
Incorporating the ocean into visions of an environmentally stable future would first require a change in our ocean imaginary.

The oceans have long been a space upon which utopian ideals, future possibilities, and even the salvation of humanity have been projected.

Marine scientists, environmental economists, and politicians have argued that a global Green New Deal should meaningfully include the ocean.

Proposals for a ‘blue new deal,’ or a ‘teal deal’ would integrate land- and sea-based initiatives.

Advocates of an oceanic new deal indicate a number of areas where environmental sustainability and economic gain could be achieved, and “good paying, union jobs” created.

This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.

Justice

These include emissions-cutting measures in marine transportation, sustainable fisheries management, aquaculture, and marine habitat protection. There is much to like about a global blue new deal.

As an interdisciplinary group of scientists, environmental economists, and geographers explained in Conservation Letters earlier this year, incorporating the ocean into visions of an environmentally stable future would first require a change in our ocean imaginary.

Rather than viewing the oceans “as climate change aggressors (e.g., sea level rise) or victims (e.g., coral reef decline)” a ‘teal deal’ necessitates that we would first “recognize oceans as an integral part of climate solutions”. This focus on possibility rather than catastrophe is refreshing.

Moreover, a blue new deal presents an opportunity to understand the oceans beyond binary terms as risky or at risk - and to see them as deeply connected to land-based human activities and social and economic value systems.

And, the blue new deal focuses more astutely on issues of social justice and inequality than the recent spate of proposals, anchored in various nations, for the development of the ‘blue economy.’

Interconnection

However, we want to flag three significant and related risks of a global blue (or teal) new deal as it has been discussed in political and environmental circles and as it manifests in associated ocean imaginaries.

The first is linked to the discourses of global good that permeate blue new deal language.

The high seas and their resources - as well as the resources of the international seabed - have been codified into international law as being for the benefit of “all mankind”.

The global ocean, its living inhabitants, and its nonliving resources are often viewed as just that: part of what the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) calls the “heritage of all mankind” and part of a global common.

The oceans have long been a space upon which utopian ideals, future possibilities, and even the salvation of humanity have been projected.

Thinking with the oceans and the interconnection between marine, terrestrial, and atmospheric matters encourages this viewpoint.

Foils

Yet, these discourses do not simply elide the often complex, overlapping, and contradictory juridical regimes that shape global ocean governance - many of which are laid out in UNCLOS.

They also are used as foils behind which space is held open for ocean resources to be exploited by particular nations and global corporations (Zalik 2015).

Second, these blue and teal deal proposals also risk perpetuating an understanding of the oceans as a realm of untapped potential.

Although the ‘blue new deal’ steps encouragingly away from notions of the ocean as a space for limitless and friction-free capital accumulation - for example by calling for the end of deep-sea drilling, there is the potential in these discourses to reproduce notions of the oceans as reservoirs of resources and services, even if these services include carbon sequestration and small-scale livelihood provision.

Nostalgia

A third related concern is the trap of nostalgia that permeates much of the GND discourse.

The original New Deal in the United States was intimately tied to the entrenchment of settler colonialism in the United States.

This included the establishment of large-scale infrastructure projects as well as the continuation of the violence of Native American boarding schools, which expanded throughout the 20th century

In the United Kingdom, proposals to catalyze a “Green Industrial Revolution” similarly bury the extractive violence that accompanied the first Industrial Revolution.

Trap

Visions of the global ocean as a project for economic expansion risks the erasure, elision, and repetition of these colonial histories and ideologies.

Taken together, ignoring these risks would mean falling into a trap that sees the oceans as ‘aqua nullius,’ spaces of untapped potential resources - whether carbon sequestration potential or marine protein - and realms where current and historical relations between humans, and between humans and nonhumans, are secondary if acknowledged at all.

In doing so, questions of who exactly benefits from such measures and whose lives will be potentially harmed by them are often left unaddressed.

Moreover, other ways of valuing and relating to ocean space outside of a system of quantified accounting and economic exchange are left unexplored.

Justice-orientated

Therefore, we argue that issues of marine governance and equality must be foregrounded in discussions of a blue new deal and must be approached with an analytic capable of accounting for the different imaginaries, value systems, and relationships with and of the ocean that proliferate around the world.

In short, imagining a “teal deal” requires contending not with an imagined “global ocean” in the singular, but with overlapping and contested oceans in the plural.

The oceans have long been a space upon which utopian ideals, future possibilities, and even the salvation of humanity have been projected - by imperial powers and indigenous coastal communities alike.

The oceans are an alluring and productive site for imagining otherwise.

But a truly effective and equitable global blue new deal must be clear-eyed about the risks such imaginaries elide, and put issues of equality and justice-oriented governance first.

This Author

Dr Jessica Lehman is Assistant Professor in the Department Of Geography at Durham University in Durham, UK. Elizabeth Johnson is professor in the Department Of Geography at Durham University in Durham, UK.

Donate

The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here